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Teaching tools

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Six principles for passing on the faith

By Fr. Michael J. Himes

On several occasions I have been asked to speak to graduate students about teaching techniques in theology. George Bernard Shaw famously claimed, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches," and my corollary is that he who cannot teach, teaches others to teach. With that salutary caution in mind, I make bold to offer some reflections on communicating the faith.

1. Faith is not something that one can give to another. Faith is a theological virtue, infused by God into the heart and mind of the believer. Foremost and always, the teacher must remember that faith is a grace, an act of God's self-giving. The teacher can exemplify this grace, sacramentalize it, and inspire the hearer to desire it. What he or she cannot do is give it. Grace is given by God alone because grace is the self-communication of God to creatures.

And yet, the grace of faith leading to the assent of belief would remain formless, implicit, and incapable of communal expression and proclamation without the word of God conveyed to us by others—by parents, friends, catechists, pastors, and theologians. The historical public forms of faith—doctrines, liturgy, formal prayers, devotional practices—make concrete and explicit what St. Paul called the unspeakable groanings of the Spirit.

Since teachers cannot cause faith, a teacher's first work for his or her hearers must be to ask that grace be given them. In other words, it is to pray for them. That is the one work at which a teacher can always be successful.

2. The teacher of faith is a storyteller. Even in its most abbreviated form—"Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again"—the proclamation of faith is a narrative. Before doctrines and moral precepts must come the story. And the best advice about how to tell the Christian story is that of the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: "Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

I am convinced that the way to introduce people into the faith is to show them how they fit into a story that, quite literally, begins "in the beginning" and continues without end. I know no greater service a teacher can do for students (certainly contemporary American students) than to help them discover that history is their biography, that their life stories began long before their lives did, and that they are part of a universal narrative.

Obviously, the Christian narrative is in large part scripture. But it is a serious mistake to tell the story in such a way that, after reaching its central moment in the life, death, and destiny of Jesus Christ, we jump to the eschaton. The narrative is the story not only of patriarchs and prophets and apostles but also of martyrs and Church fathers and monks and reformers, of saints and scholars and builders of communities and servants of the poor. The history of the Church is as much a part of the story of God's self-communication to creation as is the history of Israel. To try to teach the faith without teaching the story of the Christian community is comparable to performing Romeo and Juliet without Juliet.

3. Students should be introduced into conversation with their predecessors. For many centuries, Christian preachers and teachers made the narrative of salvation the story of their hearers by employing an allegorical exegesis in which types and antitypes answered to one another across centuries. That may not seem persuasive today, but the goal of those teachers, from Origen to Dante to Erasmus (not a bad lineage, that), remains important: to show how the past of the story of salvation is still present.

The communion of saints is a powerful image in our tradition, and it supports multiple meanings (as do all really powerful images). One meaning that may be useful to recover is communion as communication or conversation. To be truly a participant in an historical community is to enter into conversation with persons who do not happen to be living at the same time as we are. Indeed, being dead in no way diminishes a person's value to the tradition. In a favorite passage of mine from G.K. Chesterton, the author memorably writes:

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father.

It is my conviction that in communicating faith, in introducing others into the narrative of salvation, we must bring them into conversation with believers who are not present to them at this time and place. I do not mean simply that students should be told about the likes of Aquinas and Augustine and Newman and Rahner—about what they did, thought, and said—but rather that they should be prodded to ask them questions and to be open to questioning by them, to fight with them and agree with them on some things and disagree with them on others, doing, in short, what people do when they talk with one another.

4. All successful communication is conversation. I fear that this may be thought a trendy statement of contemporary educational theory. Far be it from me to suggest that communicating the faith should be an extended question-and-answer session, still less a matter of simply breaking into discussion groups. No, what I am suggesting is at least as old as Plato.

I do not think that it was merely in the interest of literary form and flair that Plato wrote dialogues. I suspect the idea was rooted in something he had learned from Socrates, namely, that all real learning takes place in conversation. A homily or a lecture should be as much a conversation as any small group session. The speaker should be in conversation with the text and, equally important, with his hearers who should be talking back, albeit within themselves: "What does he mean? Do I agree? If not, why? How does this cohere with what I have experienced or heard in the past? What ought I to do about it?" The communicator of faith must be a facilitator of conversation.

5. The absolutely necessary requirement for all successful preaching and teaching is joy. Augustine was correct: The communicator of faith must be characterized by hilaritas, must be enthusiastic and enjoy what he or she is doing. As Augustine knew, however, many things can sap enthusiasm. Weariness, discouragement, the nagging fear of pointlessness all can poison one's joy. And again he was quite correct (in my experience) about the only way to hold on to one's enthusiasm for teaching or preaching: Center on one's hearers. Communicating faith is not about the speaker; it is about the hearers. Love what you teach and whom you teach.

6. And finally: Preachers and teachers of faith should never forget that the primary resource for their teaching lies not in themselves but in their hearers. The longing, restless heart that Augustine recognized in each and every human being drives us all, some by a direct path, some more circuitously, toward God. Preachers and teachers simply give name to the inner experience of their hearers, in what Karl Rahner described as a fruitful meeting of the internally and externally spoken words of God.

Humanity's deep and abiding hunger, that restlessness of the heart, that ache for God, is the preacher's and teacher's greatest ally.

 

Fr. Michael J. Himes is a professor of theology at Boston College. His essay is excerpted from a paper he presented on September 18 at "Handing on the Faith," a conference sponsored by BC's Church in the 21st Century initiative.

 

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